Except for Roman Polanski's 1971 adaptation of Macbeth, the new film Death and the Maiden is his only film version of a play. Shakespeare to Ariel Dorfman--what a comedown. Still, Polanski did his best--he gave Dorfman's dreary, annoyingly earnest revenge melodrama about political torture a smooth, elegant rendering onscreen. The film is a model of unfussy stage-to-screen transmigration--Polanksi allowed it to retain its basic shape as a one-set, three-character play without giving us claustrophobia. What he wasn't able to do is give substance to Dorfman's creaky dramaturgy. The plot goes through a variety of disbelief-overloading gymnastics to give a former political prisoner (Sigourney Weaver) the drop on the man (Ben Kingsley) she believes was her torturer of years earlier. After that, the script (by Dorfman and Rafael Yglesias) has little left to do but let the characters deliver long monologues to each other. Each plot development feels like a jump-start, to move the piece a few more blocks before it peters out again.
The setting is an isolated cottage on a coastal road in an unnamed South American country (Dorfman is Chilean) during a period of democratic reform. Weaver is the wife of an important government official (Stuart Wilson) who, like her, was a student activist in the days of the old regime, but who was never a prisoner. Her silence, in the face of repeated rapes and hideous torture, prevented his arrest, and now he's participating in the new regime's rather weak and toothless investigation of these atrocities. The husband gets a flat on the way home one night, and who should just happen to give him a lift but a weaselly doctor (Kingsley) whom Weaver, listening from the next room, instantly recognizes as her chief tormenter. She pulls a gun on him, and, over her husband's protestations, ties him to a chair. She claims only to want a confession, but Kingsley refuses to admit it was he--he claims he was practicing in Barcelona during the years in question.
Polanski buffs will observe that this isn't the first film in which the director combined domestic drama with captivity, although in the 1966 Cul-de-Sac, it was the married couple who were held prisoner. Once you've swallowed the initial contrivances, Death and the Maiden is reasonably tense; Polanski hurries it along, giving it the feel of a thriller in spite of the windiness of the verbiage. Tonini Delli Colli's cinematography is exquisite, particularly when the subject is the actors' faces. The visual high point of the film is the talking head of Kingsley, framed in front of the craggy coastline, as he pours out his desperate final monologue. There are jolting moments, especially the occasional bursts of violence, which have a blunt, ugly, undramatized feel. The characters really come across like people trying to physically dominate each other. And Polanski's antic perversity shows itself, too, as when Weaver uses her own panties to gag Kingsley.
There are those who think Sigourney Weaver is a stony stiff, and those who think she's a capable actress with a wonderful, heroic presence. I tend to the latter opinion, and this film should win her a few new converts--she gets through her punishingly difficult speeches with admirable simplicity and grace. Wilson, a good general-purpose actor usually relegated to more forgettable roles, holds his own as the husband, but Kingsley is the real standout as the terrified yet calculating doctor. Almost inevitably, his panic begins to draw one's sympathy, but that's about as close to emotional ambiguity as Death and the Maiden gets. Yet neither Weaver's nor Kingsley's outbursts really take us anywhere new on the subject. Death and the Maiden is a dramatic cul-de-sac, perhaps because torture is one of those subjects that rarely yields to aesthetic treatment. Depict it graphically, and you run the risk of seeming exploitive; set the story years after the fact and you get Death and the Maiden: three attractive, sophisticated-looking people having a wordy, rhetorical conflict in a well-appointed cottage.
No matter how eloquent the talk of torture is--and Dorfman does muster some eloquence at times--and no matter how well that talk is filmed, talk it remains. The stink and the screams become abstract.--
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.